Thursday, July 28, 2011

Somewhere - Review

Sofia Coppolla’s fourth film is the second from her own screenplay and, while it shares Lost in Translation’s DNA – a bored, semi-famous movie star (Johnny Marco, played by Stephen Dorff) hangs around a hotel (in this case, hotels) pondering his place in life while doing not much with a younger woman (this time, his daughter Cleo, played by Elle Fanning) – it is very much its own film, with its own concerns and, regrettably,  its own flaws.

Coppolla's direction is perfectly controlled, but her script lets her down. Through the pace of the editing, the composition of her shots and the general lack of her usual hipster cool soundtrack, Coppola manages to richly express her characters. The problem is that her characters are not much fun to watch - Dorff's Johnny Marco is a frustratingly hollow man, while the talented Fanning's Cleo is vague and underwritten.

The opening shot explains everything that is at once brilliant and frustrating about Coppola's latest exploration of celebrity alienation - a stationary shot of Johnny Marco's black Ferrari drives in and out of shot as he circles an abandoned racetrack - over & over & over & over & over & over & over again. Not at an exceptional speed, and with no one watching or cheering him on.

As a methaphor for Johnny's life, the opening shot could not be more effective; a fancy sports car, but no joy whatsoever. Just when you think Coppola can't possibly make you watch Johnny going around the track any more, she does. A few more times. It's powerful film making; as frustrating to watch as it must be to be Johnny, but making a film so committed to the boredom of its lead character has an obvious pitfall; it can be difficult to enjoy. And that is where Coppola's script & characters fails to provide the payoff needed to make the journey worthwhile.

Coppola's pacing traces the (minimal) development of Johnny and Cleo's relationship, but her technique is more intriguing than the actual characters.

Before Cleo arrives, scenes are shot in long, exhaustive takes with only diegetic (in-scene) music, and not Coppola's usually hipster cool music at that. While Johnny's life does not lack event, it certainly lacks emotional engagement, and so does the film, which is a beautiful illustration, but at times a difficult one to sit through. But that is Johnny's life.

Once Cleo arrives, the pace gradually picks up and the not much that happens takes on a somewhat lighter, less claustrophobic tone. In my opinion, though, the scene chronicling a game of Wii tennis takes it one step too far, but perhaps others may find it refreshing.

It's only once Johnny & Cleo have finally started to grow comfortable around each other - minus much  talking, mind you - & decide to spend a last day together before Cleo goes to Summer camp, that Coppola allows the editing & soundtrack to flow, setting a sweetly joyful montage of father / daughter poolside bonding to The Strokes' smashing I'll Try Anything Once.

But the surfacing of Johnny's feelings lead only to a solitary, self-loathing breakdown which is powerfully written and performed, but somehow feels forced an inorganic. And after hours of hanging around looking smart, shy & laid back cool, Fanning's Cleo is also allowed an out-of-the-blue, although justified, emotional catharsis, to which Johnny responds with a blank stare and awkward muttering.

When Johnny bids Cleo farewell, he is only able to express any kind of love for her when drowned out by the roar of a helicopter. Although a beautiful expression of Johnny's inertia, it is hard to care, after so much time, about a bored, self-indulgent movie star who makes no effort to enjoy his life, know himself or contribute anything of value to his daughter, even when she is begging for just one of her parents to make her a priority.

After Cleo is gone, Johnny's purposelessly mopey ways threaten to overtaken again. A shot of  Dorff's head slowly being cut out of frame as he floats lethargically on a li-lo was apparently unplanned, but is nevertheless pure perfection.

The enigmatic final reel, set to Phoenix's stirring Love Like a Sunset Part II, effectively revisits the Ferrari metaphor, but by this point, the journey taken with Johnny to get there feels exhausting rather than enriching. It is a poetic coda to a dry & measured film.